- Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged with 52 counts related to pulling over drivers, planting drugs like meth on them, and arresting them.
- Nearly 120 cases involving Wester have been dropped, and more are being reviewed.
- While some victims are pleased with the charges, many others who served time or received probation because of his actions feel that the damage is already done.
- In one case, a victim lost custody of a child, and in another, a victim was forced to serve a year in rehab.
Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged Wednesday for pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions, planting drugs on them, and then booking them for possession.
According to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Wester was arrested on “felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.”
This morning, FDLE arrested former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy Zachary Wester on a litany of charges, including racketeering, fabricating evidence, and false imprisonment. #arresthttps://t.co/9McYv4FT6G pic.twitter.com/fkO1oRcJCs— FDLE (@fdlepio) July 10, 2019
He was also charged with “misdemeanor perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia,” the statement said. Together, Wester faces a total of 52 separate charges.
It is unclear how much prison time he could get. The Washington Post reported that State Attorney William Eddins, who oversaw the case, told reporters Wester could face up to 30 years.
The Tallahassee Democrat said that the racketeering charge alone has a max penalty of 30 years, and the other felonies have max sentences of five years.
However, they also reported Eddins saying that under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Wester would only face 13 and a half years if found guilty on all charges, noting that a judge could give him more.
While Wester was only arrested on Wednesday, the charges against him came as part of a nearly year-long investigation.
Wester was reportedly hired by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. In August 2018, the Sheriff’s Office asked the FDLE to launch an internal investigation into his conduct after a prosecutor found inconsistencies between his reports and what was captured on his body camera.
Specifically, prosecutors said he turned his body camera off most of the time, and only turned it back on after he had already found the drugs in the vehicles he was searching.
Additionally, in most cases, Wester would pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction and then ask them if he smelled marijuana, which would give him probable cause to search their car.
Despite the fact that Wester would write in his reports that he smelled or thought he saw marijuana, he would usually turn his camera back on to show he found meth.
Even in cases where the people he pulled over actually were suspected of crimes or admitted to having marijuana in the car, Wester still planted the meth, according to the affidavit.
As a result of the investigation, Wester was suspended on Aug. 1 and then fired a month later. Prosecutors said they would not file charges until the FDLE investigation was complete.
The investigation took a while because there was a lot of evidence to review. According to the FDLE statement, during the investigation, their agents, “analyzed over 1,300 minutes of recorded video and logged over 1,400 working hours on the case.”
In that footage, the investigators found one of the few instances where he kept his body camera on during a search.
In that incident, Wester had pulled over a woman named Teresa Odom, claiming her brake lights were not working properly.
In the bodycam footage, Wester is seen holding something that looks like a small plastic bag in his hand. He then puts his hand out of view under the driver’s seat and returns it without the baggy.
Wester later booked Odom for possessing meth.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, deputies who searched Wester’s patrol car during the investigation found “42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in the trunk.”
The Tallahassee Democrat also reported that prosecutors reviewed nearly 300 cases that involved Wester, and dropped the charges in nearly 120 cases, including Odom’s.
However, Eddins said that there was no evidence that Wester planted drugs or fabricated arrests in all of the cases, and noted that the charges are based on his arrests of 11 known victims named in an affidavit, though there might be more.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” he told reporters Wednesday. “There’s a substantial amount of work to be done. But I have no belief that there’s anywhere near 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may (have) not.”
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, the FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the case said in a statement.
Though many cases have now been dismissed, for a lot of people, it is too little too late.
In 2017, a man named Benjamin Bowling lost custody of his daughter after he was convicted on felony charges for possessing meth that Wester said he found in his car.
At the time, Bowling had been released from prison a few months earlier and was being drug tested. Bowling also reportedly requested that the Sheriff’s Office turn over the bodycam footage and test the drugs for DNA and fingerprints, but they never did.
The same year, a man named Jeffrey Helms and his girlfriend April Middleton were also pulled over by Wester and arrested for possessing meth.
Middleton reportedly was in jail for a few weeks before being released, but Helms, who had prior charges, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Unfortunately, that is not even where the damage Wester did to the Helms family stops. Jeffrey Helms’ sister-in-law Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat in September that her own brother was also arrested by Wester for possessing meth.
Although his charges were dropped after Wester’s arrest, it was not done until after he was forced to spend a year in residential rehab.
“He’s ruined lives,” Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat. “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages — all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes.”
See what others are saying: (The Tallahassee Democrat) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)
Pennsylvania School District Threatens Foster Care Placement Over Lunch Debt
- A Pennsylvania school district sent letters to over three dozen parents who had accumulated a school meal debt of $10 or more, warning them to pay the balance or risk having their child placed in foster care.
- The local social services agency criticized the school for “weaponizing” the foster care system to scare families into paying lunch bills.
- The president of the district’s board of education said the letters may have been strong, but they worked.
- Meanwhile, the vice president of the school board said the letters were not approved by the superintendent and is calling a meeting to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.
Debt Letter Sent
A Pennsylvania school district faced backlash for sending letters to parents this month, warning them to pay off their children’s school lunch debt otherwise they may face consequences that could result in their child being placed in foster care.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter from Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District, read.
“This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.” the letter continued.
The letters were sent out to those with a balance of at least $10 or more.
Outrage Over Foster Care Threat
Parents in Luzerne County did not respond well to the threat from the school district and the letter soon made national headlines. But the mention of foster care also pulled Luzerne County Children and Youth Services into the issue.
“The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills,” Joanne Van Saun, director of the local agency, wrote in a letter to the district’s superintendent.
“We exist to protect and preserve families. The only time a child is taken out is when they cannot be maintained safely in their home,” she later told CNN. “Our agency has helped many children and families with paying rent and buying clothes. We know children do better when they’re with their families.”
Van Saun added that she felt “blindsided” by the district’s letter, especially since the district and the agency have had a good relationship with one another in the past. “The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could’ve easily been resolved through so many different avenues.” she said.
C. David Pedri, Luzerne county manager, also wrote the district a letter complaining about the notice.“It weaponizes Luzerne County’s foster care system,” Pedri said on Saturday in a statement to The New York Times. “It’s exactly what we’re not here to do. The foster care system is here to help kids who are abused.”
“Taking a kid out of a house is one of the most extreme things that a foster care system has ever tried to do,” he added. “So you don’t do it lightly. We would never take a kid out of a house for failing to pay a school lunch bill.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey even called the letters “callous,” adding, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically.”
Mixed Responses From Officials
According to CNN, Wyoming Valley’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds Policy says nothing about parents potentially going to court or losing their children. However, it does state that families with a student account that reaches negative $10 or more will receive “an automated call every Friday” until the remaining balance is paid.
After being identified by WNEP as the person who penned the letter, Joseph Muth told the news station that it was a “last resort” effort to deal with the roughly $22,000 in debt that the district had accumulated.
Joseph Mazur, the president of the district’s board of education, told NPR that the district had tried contacting parents by mail, email, robocalls, and personal calls, before the notice, but nothing worked.
Mazur then defended the letter saying: “I think you have to pay your bills. I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of.”
“We are in the process of trying to save money wherever we can. We have laid off some employees. We have reduced some of our curriculum. And we’re looking anywhere we can save,” Mazur said. “I don’t care if it’s $1,000 or $20,000.”
Mazur did note that all students in the district received a meal. “Every poor kid got a meal,” Mazur said. “If the Board of Directors was mean and cruel they’d just honestly say, ‘stop the lunches,’ but we didn’t.”
“Was the letter a little strong? Maybe yes,” Mazur added. “But it did work, because they’re paid now.”
However, David Usavage, vice president of the school board, told the Times on Saturday that he received about six phone calls complaining about the letter. He also added that when he first read the notice, he thought it was a “joke.”
The letter “was not approved by anyone,” Usavage said. “We have a policy that says everything should go through the superintendent.”
It is not uncommon for the district to mail letters to parents, asking them to pay debts, but the language has always been “softer,” he said.
Usavage explained that the notice was written by Muth and the district’s lawyer, Charles R Coslett. Usavage said Muth has since apologized over the notice, but did not release any information about potential consequences for the two.
Usavage also provided the Times with more information about the district’s debt, saying that the district, which is made up of seven different schools, serves school meals that cost between $1 to $2.70 to about 5,000 children.
“We have never denied anyone because they don’t have money,” he said. “We would never, ever allow a child to go hungry.”
However, Usavage said that 960 students had accumulated a debt of five cents up to $9.99. Parents of 40 children owed $10 or more and parents of four students owed more than $440.
For now, Usavage said he would call a special meeting with the school board to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.
“I don’t want the people who live in the Wyoming Valley West School District to think we are so classless as to send out a letter threatening parents,” he said. “I can assure you we will not take one child or one parent to any kind of court to get back the money.”
For the coming school year, the district will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students. regardless of their family’s financial need.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (NPR)
NJ Judge Who Spared Teen Accused of Rape Because He Was From a “Good Family” Steps Down
- New Jersey Judge James Troiano has resigned after facing criticism for ruling that a teenage boy accused of rape should not be tried as an adult because he was from a “good family” and had good grades.
- An appellate court overturned the ruling and made the decision public, prompting widespread outrage, protests, and numerous lawmakers to call for Troiano’s resignation. It was also reported that Troiano and his family received threats of violence.
- Troiano’s resignation was announced by the state’s Supreme Court, which also said that they were starting the proceedings to remove Judge John Russo, who asked a woman if she had closed her legs to try to prevent an alleged sexual assault.
- The state’s Supreme Court has ordered a new initiative to enhance the training of judges in the areas of sexual assault, implicit bias, and more.
Judge Troiano Steps Down
A New Jersey judge who recommended that a 16-year-old boy accused of rape get leniency because he was from a “good family” resigned, according to an order from the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Wednesday.
In 2018, Monmouth County Judge James Troiano denied a waiver that would have allowed the teenage boy to be tried as an adult.
The teenager was accused of raping an intoxicated girl at a party, recording it, and then sending the recording to multiple people with the caption “when your first time is rape.”
Troiano argued that the defendant should not be tried as an adult because he had good grades and was from a good family.
He also said he did not think the incident was a “traditional case of rape,” which he defined as “two or more generally males involved, either at gunpoint or weapon, clearly manhandling a person.”
Troiano’s decision was later overturned by an appellate court, which made the ruling public in June.
Troiano has already been retired since 2012, but had continued to hear cases part-time. According to the order from the New Jersey Supreme Court, Troiano requested to step down effective immediately, and the court agreed.
Protests & Calls for Resignation
After Troiano’s decision was made public, he was met with widespread criticism and condemnation.
Numerous elected officials in New Jersey called for Troiano to resign or be removed from the bench, and petitions calling for his impeachment were circulated.
It was also reported that Troiano and his family had received phone calls and emails threatening violence. According to The New York Times, Troiano also received death threats.
On July 11, protestors gathered outside the Monmouth County Courthouse to call for the resignation of Troiano and Judge Marcia Silva, who ruled that a 16-year-old boy accused of assaulting a 12-year-old girl should not be tried as an adult because the “offense is not an especially heinous or cruel offense.”
Silva’s decision was overturned by the same appellate court.
Judge John Russo
The state’s Supreme Court also announced that it was beginning proceedings to remove Judge John Russo, who asked an alleged victim if she had closed her legs to try to prevent being sexually assaulted.
“Because of the seriousness of the ethical violations here, it is appropriate for the Court to consider the full range of potential discipline, up to and including removal from office,” Justice Stuart Rabner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey wrote in the order.
According to NBC News, the state’s Supreme Court is seeking a harsher punishment for Russo after a judicial ethics commission recommended three-month unpaid suspension earlier this year.
Russo has said he was just trying to get more information from the alleged victim.
NBC also reported that Russo had been reassigned to another county court in December, and will have until next month to contest his removal in front of a panel of state Supreme Court judges.
He will be suspended without pay during the process.
New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy released a statement on Wednesday applauding the state Supreme Court’s decision.
“Unfortunately, the inexcusable actions of several judges over recent months have threatened this reputation for thoughtful and reasoned opinion, and common decency,” Murphy said. “I am gratified that Judge Troiano will no longer sit on the bench and that removal proceedings will begin against Judge Russo.”
However, last week, New Jersey’s top public defender, Joseph Krakora, defended Troiano and Silva in a rare public statement.
“Vilifying or seeking the removal of judges who make unpopular or even erroneous decisions threatens the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “Judges are simply lawyers entrusted with the responsibility of deciding difficult cases.”
“Litigants sometimes feel that their decisions are incorrect or unfair. That is why we have appellate courts,” he continued.
The New Jersey Supreme Court also ordered a new initiative Wednesday to improve how judges are trained to address sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as diversity and implicit bias.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today)
Berkeley To Remove Gendered Language From City Code
- The City Council voted unanimously to replace more than two dozen terms often used in the city’s municipal code with gender-neutral words.
- Along with changing “he” and “she” pronouns to “they” and “them,” the move will also swap words like “manholes” with “maintenance holes,” and tiles like “firemen” with “firefighters.”
- Local officials say the move is necessary to make “the environment of City Hall and the language of city legislation consistent with the principles of inclusion.“
The Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a measure on Tuesday that would replace more than two dozen gender-specific words from its municipal code in a move towards improving nonbinary gender inclusivity.
The ordinance on gender-neutral language will replace words like “he” an “she” to “they” and “them” in the city code. But it will also do away words like “manholes,” “manmade,” and “manpower.” Instead, “manholes” will be changed to “maintenance holes” and other references to “manmade” will be changed to “artificial.” Terms like “human effort” or “workforce” will replace “manpower.”
Other terms that will be changed include “pregnant women”, which will be switched to “pregnant employees.” “Brother” and “sister” will be switched to a “sibling.”
Job titles like “bondsman” will be “bonds-person,” “firemen” and “firewomen” will now be “firefighters.”
“Fraternity” and “sorority” soon be changed to “collegiate Greek system residence,” along with several other changes.
Berkeley city councilmember Rigel Robinson, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, sponsored the ordinance in March. “In recent years, broadening societal awareness of transgender and gendernonconforming identities has brought to light the importance of non-binary gender inclusivity,” Robinson’s ordinance reads.
“Therefore, it is both timely and necessary to make the environment of City Hall and the language of city legislation consistent with the principles of inclusion.”
The move still requires a second reading at the council for the proposal to become official. That will then be followed by a 30-day waiting period. However, based on Tuesday’s unanimous vote, the language change is expected to easily pass through the remainder of the process.
“There is power in language. This is a small move, but it matters,” Robinson tweeted after the ordinance was approved.
Robinson’s office estimates that it will cost about $600 to implement the change to the municipal code.
The move is not surprising for Berkeley. The city has implemented similar changes in the past in an effort to make the community more inclusive. In February, the city began giving all employees the option to receive a name badge with a preferred pronoun printed alongside their professional title.
Other efforts to improve inclusivity have also made waves across the state. In 2014, then-Governor Jerry Brown approved a measure that replaced “husband” or “wife” in state law with “spouse.”
Then in 2017, California became the first state to provide a third gender option on state driver’s licenses, identification cards, and birth certificates with the passage of Senate Bill 179.
California is not alone in that move. Maine and Washington D.C. have also made efforts to recognize gender-neutral individuals on drivers licenses.